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From left to right: Minister Chris Ballard, Mayor Bonnie Crombie, Julia Langer, and Laura Zizzo.

How can we make our communities more vibrant, livable and sustainable?

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to join Minister of Environment and Climate Change Chris Ballard to talk about how we build sustainable communities.

As part of the Ontario Liberal Party’s policy series, “Common Ground,” I was asked to submit my big idea on how we can ensure that our communities have the infrastructure they need to be resilient in the face of climate change and a rapidly changing economy.

The way we designed our communities, until recently, was based on the automobile and much lower priced gasoline.  Communities like Mississauga provided the “suburban dream” where you could own and live in a 2,500 square foot home, two car garage, around great schools, but still commute by car to the office.

This has changed. Not just for Mississauga, but for all communities in the GTA and beyond.

We need to change how we live.

Here’s my big idea – to build energy sustainable, low carbon, “complete communities.”

Mississauga is a case study in changing the way we think about building our communities to change how we live – for the better.  This involves taking a number of actions that are all tied together. I discuss a few of these actions briefly below.

The first is increasing densities and building mixed-use developments that encourage business to locate near residential areas to allow for live, work and play communities. Retrofit suburbia with smart communities that focus on people, not cars will make it so people can stay in close proximity to their place of employment, rather than commute long distances. But, if they do need to commute, we need to…

Provide frequent rapid and local transit to communities to connect them internally with the rest of the city and externally to the wider GTA region.  We’re doing this with the Hurontario Light Rail Transit (LRT), Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), and Regional Express Rail (RER), as well as our enhanced local transit on more of a grid network.

We need to work toward creating net zero communities, powered by renewables – our new developments must be designed to be as efficient as possible.  Alectra, our local power utility, is on board to change the way we power communities and make our energy use smart and sustainable over the long term.

We also need to rethink the way we power transit by making the switch to electricity and other low carbon fuels, like hydrogen. We need to look at hydrogen fuel as a viable opportunity and weigh the short term cost of converting to this fuel source, versus the long term cost of not converting to power our transit.

That leaves the automobile – we need to work more seriously toward achieving the goal of 30-50% of all vehicles being electric or powered by alternative fuels by 2040. This is a goal of the Global Covenant of Mayors, which Mississauga recently joined.  By transforming our developments to be person-centred, rather than auto-centred, we reduce the reliance on cars and allow for EVs.

Of course, government alone cannot effect change.  We must engage and work with local businesses and residents.  Our local businesses are producing new technologies, like hydrogen fuel, that we can take advantage of.  Residents can make small changes in their lives that make a big difference in the size of our footprint going forward.

We’ve already started working with these guidelines to build more sustainable communities in Mississauga.  Take West Village, for example – we are redeveloping former industrial lands into master-planned, live, work and play communities on our waterfront.  We’re exploring district energy and energy sustainability through renewals. The community has access to the Go transit network and will be integrated into our LRT network.

Another example is our downtown Mississauga core.  We’re developing the our downtown into a live, work and play community, connected by four modes of transit – the LRT, BRT, local buses, and GO transit. New developments like Camrost in particular will have residential, commercial, employment, and hotel all on one site.  We’re also meeting with all landowners to explore district energy and building “smart buildings.”

We have to do our part to preserve and protect our environment for future generations.  To this end, the City of Mississauga brought forward a motion that was unanimously approved to designate the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Basin as a United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Biosphere reserve.  The designation would lead to the largest biosphere on the planet.

We brought forward this initiative to help protect the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River basin for future generations. Nearly 50 million people in communities throughout Canada and the United States depend on water from the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence region for their health and well-being. This is especially the case for major cities like Mississauga. Protecting the Great Lakes is also fundamental to ensuring we maintain a strong, resilient and competitive economy that multiple different industries rely on.

These are not changes that will happen overnight.  There has to be a long term plan to get there.  Mississauga is the ultimate test case, but by no means the only community in Ontario that is taking this direction to build more sustainable communities.

Let’s expand the discussion around how we build cities in the 21st century. Share your big idea to make our communities more vibrant, livable and sustainable.  Tweet me at @BonnieCrombie or e-mail me at mayor@mississauga.ca.